The constant, often subconscious, contact with musical notes in what is perceived as a non-musical context could somehow deepen the way Egyptians hear their music.
I remember cringing when my mom used to sing with gusto, hitting some notes, and joyously approximating others. “Music is for everybody, not just musicians. When I was young, people used to walk down the street and sing. Now we’re supposed to shut up and watch other people do it,” she told me, to which I rolled my awkward pre-teen eyes. Since then however, I have discovered that I inherited her musical passion and approximation, and I too advocate the universal human right to sing despite my lack of natural musical inclination.
Fortunate to attend a school that taught music starting in Kindergarten, I was handed a recorder in fourth grade after memorizing “Elephants – Go – Break – Dancing – Fridays”, (a mnemonic device for memorizing the staff of the treble clef), and expected almost instantly to sight read “Hot Cross Buns”! I failed miserably and surrendered to my fate as a mere appreciator of music.
A cab ride through Cairo is enough to witness that Egyptians are constantly partaking in music/noise-making. I’m often subjected to a chorus of honking amid the call to prayer, as my cab driver instantly shuts off the radio which had just been blasting a delightfully synthesized pop song
I tried again years later in college, replacing the elephants and their dancing with “dums” and “teks.” Thrilled to be uninhibited by notes and bars, I studied tabla for two years before coming to Egypt only to be schooled by an adorable five-year-old with major chops. Egyptian hearts must beat “maqsum” because this 4/4 rhythm is so pervasive in Arab music that every Egyptian can grab a duff and keep time, or thump it out on a table-top. Back home, with the exception of gospel choirs, most of us struggle to clap on the down-beat while singing, let alone play an entire recognized rhythm.
Perhaps this distance between Americans and rhythm is due to the lack of an easily accessible, hand-held percussive instrument in American folk music, where with the exception of spoons and the washboard or ‘frottoir’ found in Cajun music, rhythm is usually kept by the stringed instruments. The drum-kit is not exactly user friendly nor portable like the Arab tabla, frame drum, or finger symbols, all of which are relatively affordable and easy to pick up. In addition, these percussive instruments play an important role in social gatherings like moulids, zar healing rituals, and weddings where all members of society are exposed to, if not participating in, playing rhythms without any musical training.
A cab ride through Cairo is enough to witness that Egyptians are constantly partaking in music/noise-making. I’m often subjected to a chorus of honking amid the call to prayer, as my cab driver instantly shuts off the radio which had just been blasting a delightfully synthesized pop song, before driving by a crowd of women ululating for a bride and groom, entering their decorated newlywed car, which then inspires another boisterous round of honking in unison, in which even my cab driver participates.
To a large extent, Egyptians, regardless of gender, age, andsocial status, have retained their roles as participants in the music they value so much EVERYDAY, not just on Karaoke night
Digesting this layered and often-headache-provoking sonar landscape can provide clues to many cultural traditions and attitudes prevalent in Egypt today. The sheer importance of marriage as a social establishment is evident when half of the city celebrates with every couple by honking the same infectious rhythm. To debunk my own hypothetical situation, Egyptian weddings never start early enough to collide with ‘Esha, the last adan of the day, perhaps partly because of the attitude that music should not be played over the call to prayer, or perhaps simply because Egyptian Standard Time maxed-out mosque speakers, or wafting unnoticed through the ears of passive listeners, the adan is not sung, rather “called,” in the ‘maqamat’ or Arab melodic modes. While not considered a musical art-form, this projection shares the same modal system as Arab music. (If only Maria and the Von Trapp children were broadcasted five times a day in America, then at least I’d be able to sing “Hot Cross Buns.”)
The constant, often subconscious, contact with musicalnotes in what is perceived as a non-musical context could somehow deepen the way Egyptians hear their music. After all, the cobbler, the farmer, the taxi driver, and the doctor all revel in singing along with Oum Kolthom, Abdel Halim Hafiz, and Mohamed Abdel Wahab, to name a few of the singers and composers who make up the core of ‘tarab,’ and whose lyrics range from odes of love to religious pieces, sung in colloquial Egyptian dialect to the highest register of Modern Standard Arabic. This means that even the semi-literate Egyptian memorizes and sings in a variety of Arabic that even the most educated Egyptian does not normally speak.
Egyptian hearts must beat “maqsum” because this 4/4 rhythm is so pervasive in Arab music that every Egyptian can grab a duff and keep time, or thump it out on a table-top
Television, the internet, and other forms of passive entertainment have invaded both American and Egyptian cultures filling up the time that people used to spend playing music together informally, whether singing in the parlor around the piano, or fireside reciting poetry accompanied by the ‘rabab.’ However to a large extent, Egyptians, regardless of gender, age, and social status, have retained their roles as participants in the music they value so much EVERYDAY, not just on Karaoke night.
The shared sense of pride and collective ownership of musical traditions, which form a large part of Egyptian identity and national consciousness, is powerful in its ability to give agency to a people retaking their country.
If Egyptians continue to fight for their rights with the confidence and fervor that they sing and shimmy then my only concern will be applauding.
This article was originally printed in Discord